Of all the stories told about Jonathan Karp, perhaps the one that stands out most is this: in a meeting a few years ago, the editor stood, held up a record from musician/author Rupert Holmes and said, essentially: "This man changed my life, and I am going to publish his book."
The story, even allowing for exaggeration, showcases vintage Karp: boyishly cheerful, ineluctably passionate and, sometimes, a little indifferent or oblivious to how others hear him. (I mean, the guy wrote the piña colada song.)
It's clear that these traits helped the 41-year-old shoot through the profession as though in a pneumatic tube. They are also, perhaps, what precipitated his abrupt resignation from the most prestigious job in publishing.
No company attracts fascination like Random, and no Random editor attracts attention like Karp. People still talk about an ill-fated hair-coloring experiment as if he were Brad Pitt.
And why not? The Jon Karp Story has been fascinating, a chance to watch a remarkable career unfold before our eyes. In the storytelling business, he has offered the ultimate narrative: a complex character and the sharpest plot twists.
After a stint as a reporter in his early 20s, Karp took a lowly editorial job at a talent-heavy Random House. He spent the next 16 years there. In an age of wanderlust, he scaled the corporate mountain without leaving the building. His talent for reinvention was Nixonian—after the departure of mentor Harry Evans, then after the firing of (new) mentor Ann Godoff. Both events led to promotions. In 2000, as a senior editor, he left for a job in film. It lasted only a few months. But four years later he was editor-in-chief.
"What's so amazing about this is that Karp survived the biggest shakeups in publishing. And now with no outside drama he just up and walks out," said a former colleague.
Among agents and editors last week, the reasons flew: a lack of monetary freedom; a lack of editorial freedom; clashes with those above; clashes with those below; a desire for more power; a desire to drop out for a while.
But even more worthy of discussion than his exit is his success. It wasn't just about passion; it was about payoff. He took unknowns and manufactured nonfiction bestsellers as if in a factory: Hillenbrand, Bronson, Pollack, Orlean, Kurson. Even some at Random who differed with Karp could soon rue his exit, said an editor at another house. "They'll realize how often he brought in good books."
It's possible that this enthusiasm led to missteps—a reported solicitation of Peter Olson over issues with Little Random brass couldn't have helped. Someone who worked with him said last week that "The thing about Jon is he's the kind of person who likes to leap before he looks," and one can imagine how, in the case of a job that rewards risks but remains corporate, that can work for and against you.
Karp leaves a deep imprint in the book culture, especially with narrative nonfiction. And without him we wouldn't know that corporate publishing figures can still be colorful and controversial characters. The industry can, naturally, only wait for his second act.